Industry Memoirs: Lessons Learned, Part 1

This is a revised and expanded version of an email I sent to my QA team back in March of 2010. I was a Sr. Manager at the time working for THQ in Phoenix, AZ.

To set this up, the majority of the team was at the peak of testing the second installment in our UFC series. Some cracks were starting to show in their resolve and camaraderie, so I decided to share this with the entire department.

It might have been specific to that particular time and project, but I think this is useful advice for any new leader, or someone coming into the workforce fresh, whether it’s in videogames or not.

20140724_ufc2Stress levels run high on big projects. Stress levels run high in Quality Assurance, period. This has been a universal truth for as long as I’ve been in this industry. As the end of UFC 2‘s test cycle approaches, I’ve been asked several times, “How do you deal with all this stress so well?”

The thing is, I don’t know that I do. I know I haven’t in the past. Maybe I’ve learned to not let it show as much?

Whatever the case may be, I know it’s hard not to focus solely on — and get annoyed by — the world as you know it: Your team.

This very insular existence becomes the mind-numbing standard until that submission notification to Sony and Microsoft goes out and releases us back into the wild. “What is this… ‘sunlight’ you speak of?” and its variants are things I commonly hear during crunch-time, even in Phoenix where that scalp-baking sun seems to hover just a few short feet above our heads.

Sometimes we get pushed beyond our limit, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of losing it with our testing brothers and sisters, and so I want to share a couple key moments in my career that helped me keep and maintain perspective.

Back in early 1996 when I was still a new Tester, my middle name was “Overly Ambitious”, and I had an arrogant, know-it-all attitude to match. I thought I was going to be the next big-shot Designer on The Bard’s Tale IV, after all. I came into the job thinking that I was above my peers, just because I had played a bunch of obscure import games and could namedrop various industry figureheads. It’s definitely cringe-worthy stuff to recollect.

Anyway, about 4 months or so into my time at Interplay, one of my coworkers was chosen to be the newest Lead Tester. I don’t know why, but I got so mad that he was picked instead of me. He ended up taking over as my direct supervisor, and frankly, I treated him like garbage. He would ask me questions and I wouldn’t even look at him. When I did answer, it was with a bitterly sarcastic tone, usually under my breath.

From my perspective, I was just venting and didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I was responding to the situation the best I knew how. I was only 21, and in hindsight, it was the exact same way I would typically respond to my parents if I hadn’t gotten my way. In other words, childish. What a spoiled brat I was!

Instead of talking to him about this directly, I just clammed up. I found out later that my ridiculously immature behavior was being communicated up the chain to the head of the department, with suggestions that I be let go. Miraculously, I was somehow spared, but it could have easily led to a quick end to an even shorter-lived “career”.

Eventually, he invited me outside to talk during one of our breaks, and he just came out and asked me what my deal was. When I put it all out there instead of just internalizing it, I realized just how insanely unfair I was being. Here I was, a green Tester, angry about someone’s promotion that was completely well-deserved.

We became good friends after that, often shooting the breeze about art, and it was a critical lesson in teaching me the importance of not taking a passive-aggressive approach to coworker tension.

In most cases, an open and honest chat is the best way to get things resolved. What I did almost got me canned, and upon reflection, I was in the wrong the entire time. After that, my perspective changed, and I realized that all things considered, work was good! The summer before that I was jockeying a telemarketing desk and pushing carts around at Target. At Interplay, I was testing Descent II and Wolfenstein 3D, enjoying complimentary pizza during overtime, and hanging out with great, like-minded people that I am still friends with today.

20140724_freespace2However, another incident that really stands out for me was from when I was working offsite at Volition back in 1999. This one doesn’t have such a happy ending.

I was a Manager at the time, and I was asked to go out there to help put the classic space combat sim FreeSpace 2 through its final testing phase. There were 3 other Testers there from back home who had already been there for a few weeks —  including one of my best friends from college — and we would all be together for an additional month.

Things started out great, as it was a heck of an amazing opportunity to be working directly with the studio, and spending all that time with my coworkers would be a terrific way to build strong bonds. However, as the days, nights, and weeks passed, well, you know how it goes. You’re in the same office for 16+ hours per day with each other, you go out to lunch and dinner with each other, you ride in the same car with each other, and you’re in the same hotel room with each other. Something’s definitely going to give.

And give, I did.

As the Manager, I really should have kept it together. Instead, I reverted back to playground behavior, where I would be sarcastic, play favorites, not stand up for them in meetings, and mainly focus a lot of that rubbish on my friend. I was even throwing Sega Dreamcast controllers and being hurtful with my words if I was beaten at Soul Calibur. Yes, really. I actually look back on times like that and attribute it to why I don’t really care for multiplayer games anymore.

I don’t know why things turned out that way, but by the end of the project, real damage to our friendship had been done. Although he and I still hung out and for years after that, it created a permanent rift between us that never fully closed. At the end of the day, why? Because I got tired of the same stories and jokes? Because I didn’t like hearing him snore?

No, it was because of me. I put myself and those superficial things ahead of anything else, including a friendship that we had both invested a lot into. Once again, an important lesson was learned about treating others fairly and compassionately, and it would take at least several more years to finally get it right.

My experiences are not unique, and mistakes are part of life. I know that judgment during stressful projects can sometimes be clouded by many different factors, but these situations can be transformed into something great, and hopefully some of the missteps I’ve made along the way can help others avoid the same traps I fell into.


Artist Spotlight: Laura Carberg

One of the best parts about working in the videogame industry was the sheer number of creative individuals I met and became friends with. While there are talented people everywhere, it was the shared interests — comics, movies, books, cartoons, toys, and yes, videogames — that brought us all closer together. You could talk about work projects, your favorite character from Chrono Trigger, why you hated a certain filler story from Battlestar Galactica, and the ills of sparkling vampires, and everyone around you would understand and be able to contribute to the conversation. It’s hard to find that kind of interaction in the workplace, and it’s one of the main things that makes me want to go back.

20140710_laurel_c_tumblrBut that’s not what this is about. This is about a cool artist friend of mine who recently collaborated with me to come up with the avatar drawing you see here and on other social media websites. Her name is Laura Carberg, and I had the great pleasure of working with her a couple years ago at THQ’s Quality Assurance department in Phoenix, Arizona. She was already a funny and friendly person at the office, but it wasn’t until she started posting some of her work on Facebook that I realized she was into drawing and painting as well.

I recently had the chance to interview Laura from her home in Phoenix to talk more about her approach to her work, her interests, and of course, gaming.

Gray-Haired Gamer: So, is it hot enough out there yet? Sorry, cheap shot. Anyway, thanks in advance for doing this interview! Besides art, what should the internet world know about you?

Laura Carberg: I’m a comic book nerd, science fiction junkie, and I occasionally lose days at a time to videogames and Netflix.

GHG: Ah yes, the Netflix binge. Many have succumbed to its power. Have you been drawing for a while?

Carberg: Well, I’m 28, and I’d say I’ve been into art for 27 of those years. Some of my earliest memories are of me scribbling some very caveman-like stuff with crayons.

GHG: Mmm, there’s nothing like the smell of a fresh box of Crayolas. Besides cave paintings, do you like drawing anything in particular?

Carberg: Characters, props, and environments mostly, but I like to try a little of everything.

20140710_st_lauraGHG: Can you tell us a little bit about the tools you use for your artwork?

Carberg: Sure thing. I use pencils, micron pens, ink, watercolor, etc. Honestly, much like subject matter, I will try anything I can get my hands on.

When it comes to digital, I use Sketchbook Pro, Photoshop, and I bought a used Wacom Cintiq 12WX tablet. Sometimes I’ll combine digital with traditional elements, too. Each project is different.

GHG: Nice on the Cintiq! I’ve always wanted one of those. Where do you draw inspiration from in coming up with new ideas?

Carberg: My personal life and feelings definitely play a part, but I also very much enjoy the storytelling elements that illustration presents as well.

GHG: Besides the sweet art you did for me, do you have anything else in the works?

Carberg: Yes, I’m part of a Kickstarter that should be starting in the middle of this month! I’m also working on a few personal projects right now, and of course, I’m always open to do commissions.

I’ve also worked on a few prototype board and card games, done some concept art for animations, storyboarded, and other comic-related gigs. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’ve been into a little bit of everything.

GHG: Yes, a pattern seems to be emerging here. This is perhaps a selfish question, but anything you want to say about your time at THQ before its demise?

Carberg: The feeling of camaraderie there was amazing. We were a family… a goofy, strange, wonderful family, and that came to me at a time in my life when I needed it the most.

Plus, there’s just something awesomely satisfying about seeing a product that has your fingerprints all over it hit store shelves. I’d be all, “Yeah, I was part of that.”

20140710_shep_laurelcGHG: Couldn’t have said it better myself. Before I get all teary-eyed (again), let’s talk a little bit about gaming specifically. Have any faves?

Carberg: Ohhhh man! Yes. The Mass Effect series, Fallout 3, Final Fantasy VIII, X, and XIII, Skyrim, Heavy Rain, the Uncharted series, Civilization V, and The Last of Us.

I love them because in most cases, they’re rich in story and character depth. Oh, and Darksiders 2 has a special place with me.

GHG: You just had to stir up those feels again, didn’t you? What’d you think of E3 this year?

Carberg: I’m not ready to commit to a new console yet, so I actually tried to ignore it! I’m still playing catch-up on my PS3, 360, and my Game Boy Advance SP.

GHG: The GBA SP is so good! I wish it’d had a few more years just to itself before the DS came out. Are you playing anything on it?

Carberg: Final Fantasy V, mostly. I’m also playing Fallout: New Vegas.

GHG: FF5 has one of my favorite title/intro sequences of all-time. Good choice! Anyone you want to say hi to or sites you want to plug?

Carberg: Hello to all of my THQ homies! Also, please check out my work at, Facebook, and Tumblr.

GHG: Thanks so much again for taking time out of your day to do this. I wish you the best with the Kickstarter project, and can’t wait to see more of your art. Stay cool!

Carberg: Thank you!


Artist Spotlight: Crystal Ferguson

Last week I unveiled GHG’s new banner art, which has received a lot of positive response! As excited as I am about the site’s new look, I’m even more excited to introduce you to the artist behind it: Crystal Ferguson. Crystal and I worked together at THQ Phoenix’s Quality Assurance (QA) department several years ago, so I was very happy to have this opportunity to work with her again. She was also kind enough to spare some time for an interview, which was fun and insightful.

Gray-Haired Gamer: Thanks for being able to do this interview today! The banner turned out terrific, by the way. Before we dive in, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Crystal Ferguson: Sure! I’m a freelance artist and stay-at-home mom. I live here in Phoenix with my husband and two children. I enjoy cooking, crafting, and sleeping! If there are any pop culture conventions in Phoenix, I’m usually there attending or exhibiting my work.

20140623_crystal_merpunks_2GHG: I enjoy sleeping too. Maybe a little too much. How long have you been drawing?

Ferguson: I’ve been drawing since I can remember, which was when I was about 2 years old. I was obsessed with drawing mermaids, thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid. The only pets I had were fish at the time, so I imagined being one, and I swam a lot.

GHG: Besides mermaids, what other subjects do you like to draw?

Ferguson: I like to draw people, but it’s always good exercise to draw everything, such as inanimate objects, organic subjects, and background elements. I’d like to improve on my backgrounds, because for me it’s a challenge to visualize angles and a character’s surroundings.

GHG: That’s definitely sound advice. What traditional and digital tools do you use for your art?

Ferguson: I traditionally start with pencils to get a rough sketch going, and then ink and color with Prismacolor and Copic markers. If I’m doing something digitally, I use Photoshop and a Wacom tablet. I recently got into Manga Studio 5, which I really enjoy using now.

GHG: I’ve never heard of Manga Studio, but I’ll have to take a look. So, what inspires your art and how do those elements make their way into your work?

Ferguson: I’m very much inspired by other artists. Recently, I’ve been following visual development artists for animation studios such as Victoria Ying, Claire Keane, and Brittney Lee. They have a movement in their drawings that I try to imitate, while keeping my own style. They launched a Kickstarter last fall and blew their original goal out of the water.

GHG: Wow, good stuff! Any recent projects of your own we should know about?


Ferguson: Yes! I’m working on an all-ages comic about steampunk mermaids called Merpunks. It’s about three mermaids who start a private detective agency, and after meeting a scientist/inventor, they use gadgets powered by steam to help solve different crimes. At first they’re small, petty crimes, but there is an overarching story that leads them to a bigger, more serious situation affecting both land and sea. My husband Joshua is the writer of the series and I provide the art.

I’ve wanted to make a comic since first being introduced to Sailor Moon. I read the manga and that’s what got me into storytelling through drawing, and it’s what really made me want to get into animation as well. I had drawn a few stories, but never publicized any of them.

After college, I was hoping to finally get something out there. I asked my husband to write a short story, but it turned into an entire series! There aren’t a lot of comics about mermaids, and the Victorian-era fashion of the steampunk genre seemed like an interesting mix.

We’ve been promoting Merpunks at conventions since Saboten 2013, and Issue #0 was released earlier this year. The next convention we’ll be at is Anime Expo in Los Angeles, so please stop by and say hello if you see us! We plan on having Issue #1 out by Saboten 2014 at the end of August.

GHG: I tried drawing a comic in high school and didn’t even make it past the first few panels. It’s harder than it looks! Switching gears a bit, can you tell us a little bit about your videogame industry experience?

Ferguson: Yes, I graduated with a degree in Media Arts and Animation, and then landed a job at THQ as a QA Tester. Although I was hoping it would lead to an art position at either a game or animation studio, I really enjoyed being part of that team, so I stayed there for about 4 years off and on. I met some really great people and have even had the opportunity to work with some of them outside of QA. If the opportunity came along, I would love to go back! The potlucks, white elephants, and contests made it fun.

GHG: I’m feeling all nostalgic now. What are some of your favorite games?

Ferguson: I like Pokemon, Donkey Kong Country and Kingdom Hearts.

GHG: I just started playing through my first Pokemon game this weekend (Pokemon X). Gotta catch ’em all, right? Are you playing anything right now?

Ferguson: I started playing Disney Infinity with my daughter, and she is just loving Elsa! She keeps freezing me when we team up. I usually play on my 3DS because it’s portable, and have Kirby: Triple Deluxe in there right now. My husband is more of a gamer, so I usually watch him play. He’s playing Shin Megami Tensei IV, Bravely Default, Final Fantasy XIV and Infamous: Second Son.

GHG: Have to admit, I’m a little jealous of your PS4. Anyway, did you want to say hi to anyone and/or promote any other works?

Ferguson: Please visit and Like my Merpunks page on Facebook! Also check out James Perry II’s manga, Orange Crows. Crystallis Navigator is a game I worked on with Elisha Miller, another ex-THQer. I’m available for commissioned work as well, so readers can contact me via the Merpunks Facebook page if they’re interested.

GHG: Well, that’s all the questions I have. Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, and best wishes to you for a successful Merpunks Issue #1 launch!

Ferguson: Thank you so much for that and for featuring my art!


A glimpse of things to come

Ever since GHG got started, one of the things I’ve wanted to do is work with and showcase as many of the talented people I’ve crossed paths with throughout my life as possible.

Back when I was working at THQ in Phoenix, one of the things I meant to do — but never did complete — was a “wall of fame” that would display everyone with their pictures, plus tidbits of information about them, including their influences, favorite games, trivia, etc.

Although that never did materialize, I’m very excited to announce that I’m resurrecting something similar here. Behind the scenes, I’ve started reaching out to some of my friends and former coworkers to partner on some small GHG projects. What you see below is the first result of that effort:


I can’t wait to reveal the entire image — which will be used as one of GHG’s title banners — and share the artist interview as well. As much as I enjoyed Persona 4, it’ll be great to finally get rid of what I have now and replace it with some original art.

Thanks again, everyone — your support and encouragement fuel what I do.